This article was originally published on Common Edge.
As planners who regularly engage everyday citizens in the planning process, we like to start by having people build their favorite childhood memories with found objects. Most often, these memories are joy-infused tales of the out-of-doors, nature, friends, family, exploration, freedom. Rarely do these memories have much to do with technology, shopping, driving, watching television, and so many of the other things that seem to clutter up our daily lives. But then again, these are folks who have known a world that has been—at least for part of their lives—screen- and smartphone-free.
Occasionally, an older workshop participant will say, “I’m really worried about the younger generations—that their only childhood memories will be from their phones and iPads.” One woman went so far as to say we would have to change the workshop format for young people altogether, as their memories would eventually all be the same: screens, video games, social media.
But is this true? What do young people who’ve grown up in a screen-filled world build for their favorite childhood memories?
Recently, before shelter-in-place, we went to Soka University of America (SUA), in Aliso Viejo, California, United States, to lead an interactive model-building workshop for an undergraduate urban planning class consisting of students aged 19 to 23. Course creator and professor Deike Peters explained that the class aims to not only “let students who are primed and prepped loose on prime planning content” but also introduce them to “the actual experience of the practice of urban planning.” Thus Peters had invited us in to not simply show students one way of conducting community outreach and visioning, but also to engage those students in that process itself. Through this process, we unexpectedly gained a window into how these young people see and understand their lives in an internet-soaked world.
After giving a bit of background about what urban planners and designers do, we set off an international group of students (hailing from Switzerland, Ethiopia, Nepal, Japan, and the U.S., to name a few) to mine their memories and make them come to life through the found objects they picked out of a massive pile of, well, junk, at the front of the room.
One workshop participant was Rodas Bekele, originally from Addis Ababa, Ethiopia, and currently a junior at SUA, who is pursuing an environmental studies degree with a focus on urban planning. In sifting through the found objects on the front table in the classroom to figure out what to build for her memory, Bekele came upon fake yellow flowers—“very similar to the flowers we would pick out for New Year's Eve and the season,” she said—and they become the grist for her model-building.
After taking about five minutes to build their models, Bekele and her classmates had a chance to share both their models and accompanying memories. As each student spoke, a picture began to emerge of shared and recurring themes that, more often than not, transcended national identity and biography.
“There used to be open fields where I lived—now it’s basically suburbia,” Bekele said of her model. “And there used to be a bunch of flowers there. So my memory was of my family, my mom and my sister. We would go to the yellow flowers and pick them. We would bring a soccer ball and just play around in the mud, pick flowers, rest up a little bit. That’s the memory I was trying to recreate. The soccer ball on the side and the yellow flowers.”
Another student, Eiji Toda, of Osaka, Japan, described how he became interested in urban planning after going from intensely urban but walkable and socially connected Osaka to Orange County and living at SUA, a beautiful campus but one that is completely inaccessible to public transit, a walk to a town center, or to a broader community.
For the model of his favorite childhood memory, Toda built something very much in contrast to his everyday reality at SUA: a local bus station in Osaka and the streets connecting to it. While the station was the focal point of the model, its presence he highlighted because it served as a springboard for experiencing a wider world. And for him, part of that wider world was the feeling of his senses opening up.
“The station is surrounded by a lot of trees, and actually the boulevard right there has a lot of big oak trees,” he said of the trees depicted in his model. “In the summer, there are lots of cicadas in the trees, and they are really loud, and that kind of soundscape is involved in the place. I could really feel the cycle of the seasons there. I would go to school every day, regardless of the season—rain, winter—so I was able to see the changes in the trees, and the changes in temperature and humidity.”
Discovery, freedom, nature, sights, sounds, family, friends, our senses awakened: all recurring themes within not just Toda’s and Bekele’s memories and models, but within all of the students’ memories and models. These are, in fact, essentially the same memories and models of older participants in our workshops as well.
When we relay stories like Bekele’s and Toda’s to planners and inquiring minds, the reaction is most often along the lines of, “Well, that was then, this is now.” In other words, regardless of these memories, the cities these students want to live in now must certainly be awash in technology.
To follow the exercise on building their favorite childhood memory, we had the students do just that: work in small groups to build their ideal cities. We set no parameters for what they were to build other than that we wanted them to build the cities they would like to live in. The groups by and large contained cultural cross-sections of students, and each group was able to return to the table in the front to mine the pile of found objects for elements for their new cities.
Subina Tapaliya, who grew up in Piple, Nepal, and her teammates Kazumi Takaishi and Yu Fujiwara, both from Japan, pulled from their experiences back home and in Aliso Viejo, to create a hybrid city that addressed needs lacking in each. “I built schools and hospitals in the model because back in my hometown, we did not have those facilities, and we suffered,” said Tapaliya of their model. “But we also built in public transportation, because here in Aliso Viejo there is none. You need a car.”
To the mix of transportation and social infrastructure, the group also added in bike lanes and green spaces for gathering, elements Tapaliya wished existed in her actual physical environment. “I realized that if there were bike paths, or more accessible public transit in Aliso Viejo, maybe I would be out and about more.”
Toda’s group—all from Japan—built a Japanese-style shopping street but made clear that an exact urban neighborhood equivalent did not exist in the U.S. “It’s a type of space that’s not really present here,” said Toda, “so I wanted to reconstruct that, and also deconstruct it—to figure out what made it work.”
To those ends, his group built a train station, a shopping street, and the neighborhood that extends out from that core. “Alongside the shopping street, there are parks and schools, and all the things that you need. We tried to put in leaves, so you could feel the transitions across the seasons,” said Toda. While the train and shopping infrastructure could constitute “technology,” no one in his team built in WiFi, or phone-charging stations, or any overt displays of technology that have become hallmarks of 21st century life.
In fact, after we had the teams report back on what they had built for their ideal cities, we asked them to pull out not simply recurring themes from the models—walkability, nature, outdoor activities, proximity, no parking, weekends and relaxation—but also those elements everyone distinctly omitted from their models. To everyone’s surprise, what they subconsciously omitted were so many elements that seem to be so intertwined with their everyday lives today: cars, technology, homework, money, television, and freestanding buildings sitting within seas of parking lots. When we pointed out that no one had built WiFi or phone-charging stations, either, several students said, “Oh, my god, we didn’t.”
Of course, it could be argued that things like WiFi and outlets for charging phones are so ubiquitous in these students’ lives that they just assumed it was a given these elements would be in their ideal cities. But is this so? When we asked Toda to reflect after the workshop on why his group hadn’t built technology into their city, he took a minute to ponder the question and replied, “We reconstructured our city based on our own memories, and less on something we have been exposed to now.” Yet in reflecting further, he realized his group had equally pulled from their experiences of modern-day Japan.
“The basis of the city should be the environment: the people, the environment, the sounds,” he said, “and the technology can enhance parts of it, but in Japan technology is not a central part of the city. For example, we have an app that helps us navigate the transportation system, but it’s not the main part of my transportation experience, but an aide that lets me explore that world.”
Bekele had a similar response. “After the first exercise, I was in the mentality of ‘fun stuff, memories, family, togetherness,’” she said, “and I think that’s what we truly value, and we carried that over when we designed the group community, this feel-good place. So technology didn’t really come up because if we’re going to come together, we’re going to talk to people rather than thinking about charging our phones, and WiFi.”
When she reflected further—in particular on what her group did not build—she homed in on physical connectivity as a core element of their ideal city. “Our model city wasn’t very car-based, and I think that’s an important part. I’ve seen the highways in the U.S. and how huge they are, and how there is no one on the street walking,” she said. “So, looking at our model, things were close together, they were human-scaled. You could walk to certain places, or bike to certain places.”
And as for technology itself? Bekele saw a role for it, but, like Toda, saw it as a tool for enhancing one’s life but not life itself. “I feel like that other stuff, other than accessing your maps [app] and going places, that stuff comes second to being with other people,” said Bekele.
Since the SOKA workshop, we have led many more workshops, with a range of ages (including kindergarteners), and 99% of their memories have been in line with all the recurring themes of the SOKA students. Sure, one student recently built playing Minecraft at home, and another, a third-grader in Los Angeles, announced that he would be building a video game system for his favorite activity in the city. Yet when he built his activity, he ended up building a park. “I said I was going to build a video game system, but I built a park instead. I don’t know why!” he exclaimed, incredulous but also thrilled at the discovery.
It seems that when push comes to shove, what we value most—both way back when and now—are not the digital pursuits that occupy much of our time and attention, but rather the things that provide us a sense of comfort, belonging, joy. Things that offer up opportunity for discovery and exploration—of the physical and natural world.
So where does that leave all of us, then, when our everyday infrastructure and frameworks for our lives neither reflect so many of our core values nor allow us to live out those values in meaningful ways? When it comes to young people, whose lives are increasingly dominated by programmed activities and little in the way of downtime and opportunities for boredom-induced discovery—the joys of a wandering mind—our observations reveal a true need for providing hands-on learning within and outside the classroom, and increased time for simply doing, well, whatever: ambling about, building a snow fort, gluing fake jewels onto wooden blocks, playing capture the flag down at the park, lying down and thinking while staring up through a tree.
Not only has no student ever built playing on a smartphone or tablet as their favorite childhood memory, no student has ever built going to soccer practice, an elaborately planned birthday, getting presents, or a debate tournament. What little simple, unprogrammed downtime they do have nowadays, that’s where their favorite memories are still created and found.